Peter C. Newman: Man of Letters
Author, journalist, firebrand … Peter C. Newman has built a career keeping Canada’s elite on their toes.
“Look at this,” Peter C. Newman entreats, pulling out something from his wallet.
The professional court jester – a man once described as both Canada’s “chronicler and conscience” – smiles the smile of a baby having a dream, unfolds something and hands a postcard-sized image across our table at Soho House in Toronto. Flummoxed and yet charmed by the blast-from-the-past stage craft, I take a moment to register the magical paper – people, these days, usually just pull up pics on their phones – and then zero in on a glossy of a comely vessel.
Newman’s latest sailboat, with quite majestic masts, is just the latest of his babies. A life-long seafarer – with the ever-present hat to match – his love is palpable, but it’s also bittersweet. He tells me he’s giving the boat up soon – and sailing, in general. “My balance isn’t the best anymore,” he says sotto voce.
Not as spry on his feet, it may be, but as nimble and shrewd as any 86-year-old ever was if the publication this fall of Newman’s latest book – his 26th! – is any indicator. With a brio that cannot be bridled, he talks about Hostages to Fortune: How the Loyalists Invented Canada, his no-doubt-boffo tome about the United Empire Loyalists.
But not only that – while he’s on about it, he rattles off three other books he’s plotting and writing. For a man who’s as close to a cultural icon that a journalist can get in this country – an astral round table that includes the likes of Barbara Frum, June Callwood, Pierre Berton – his curiousity remains incurable. “My operational code is to make facts dance” is how Newman capsulizes his MO. And boogie, he continues to do.
First things first: what does the “C” in your name stand for? That’s the most pressing thing I clear up during my rendezvous with the scribbler. “Charles,” he informs. “There was another journalist with the name Peter Newman” when he began dabbling in journalism – sometime after arriving in Canada with his family as Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia – and, so, the boldface middle initial was born.
“I knew him before anyone,” he announces, going on to recall an evening at his house where Pierre was “rolling around on my floor” with an amour, before his marriage to Margaret. (About his son, Justin, the current 24 Sussex Drive aspirant, Newman remains a firm agnostic, when asked.)
Regarding Diefenbaker, another long-ago leader of Canada, he remembers being admonished by him in public, the Conservative PM decrying him in a speech as “the slave of liberalism who writes pseudo-biographies for monetary gain.” (Knowing a good line when he hears one and being someone who can take it as well as he can dish it, Newman got a kick out of that one.)
Stringing quips is something, actually, that he has a PhD in. About, say, grade A socialite-writer Barbara Amiel – about whom, and husband Conrad Black, Newman hasn’t often been too generous – Newman once cracked, “She was the sort of woman who kept spilling out of her dresses, then blaming the dresses.”
Fittingly, he’s valiant to make himself the brunt of his bons mots, if you consider his one-liner about the collapse of his marriage (one of four) to Christina McCall (the writer who later went on to marry academic Stephen Clarkson whose own ex-wife was none other than Governor General-to-be Adrienne Clarkson). On McCall: “We divorced over religious differences. I thought I was God, and she didn’t.”
“At the time, I was editor of Maclean’s, and Seagrams, the Bronfman-owned liquor company, was our largest advertiser. So I couldn’t really publish anything unless I had incontrovertible proof.” And – eureka! – he got it, from a source close to the RCMP. With his finished manuscript “under lock and key,” he’d sent along one copy to the Book-of-the-Month Club because “we wanted them to take it, unaware at that point that … well … the Bronfmans owned the Book-of-the-Month Club.”
Naturally, they got a copy, and he – together with his publisher, Jack McClelland – were summoned by them to the 55th floor of Toronto’s TD Tower. “Now, most people think that the building has 54 floors –that’s what it advertises – but actually,” Newman scene-sets, “there’s a 55th, which at that time was the private hangout of the Bronfmans.” Long story short: threats were arrowed; words volleyed. In the end, though, none of it went anywhere, and the book was published to great success, breaking records in Canada.
Musing on that era and all the moguls he’s known and frenemied, he surprises me by declaring now, “The establishment is dead.”
It’s quite the statement coming from the fella who literally wrote the book on the subject – The Canadian Establishment, published in 1976, which changed the tenor of business writing in this country and spurred two sequels. Newman explains: “We have a meritocracy, which is more powerful,” ceding also to my opinion that celebrity today is also more potent – and porous when it comes to borders – than the poobahs he used to cover.
As for the state of journalism, he remains nonplussed. “It used to be the survival of the fittest. Now, it’s survival of the fastest.” Tweeting or live-blogging one’s story seems to him the equivalent of “publishing your notes for your story.”
For all his success and his awards – they run the better part of two pages in a CV he’d sent me earlier – there is a nagging feeling among some that Newman hasn’t been fully accepted in this country. One of his best friends, the pundit and rabblerouser Raymond Heard, accuses the more delicate members of the Canadian cultureati of denying his due by snubbing him the Governor-General’s Literary Award for nonfiction, as they always have, for his lengthy 2004 autobiography, Here Be Dragons.
OCTOGENARIANS WITH HEAT
There’s no shortage of 80-year-olds ruling their respective universes
MAGGIE SMITH, 80
Her steely quips might often steal the show, but it’s her eyes – those dragged-down pools of meaning – that remain her secret weapon. Having won favour of late for the five seasons she’s ruled as the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey, she’s simply doing what she’s done ever since she nabbed an Academy Award, back in 1969, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: being a boss.
JOAN DIDION, 80
Brains met beauty when the beloved memorist pushed aside both movie stars and supermodels, late last year, as the latest ad face of haute brand, Céline. Meanwhile, she continues to write prose that dances.
YOKO ONO, 82
Both eternal hipster and apostle of peace, she has (at last count) 4.74 million Twitter followers. Still continuing to dabble in both music and art, she’s even lived long enough to see former frenemy Paul McCartney bury the hatchet with her once and for all. In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, the Beatle called John’s widow “a badass.”
RUPERT MURDOCH, 84
It’s better to be feared than loved: Machiavelli might very well have been talking about the man behind the News Corp. empire. Though he’s taken some hits professionally – and he is the rare octogenarian to get Bieber-sized coverage of his love life – he continues to control almost-unfathomable chunks of TV, sports, news, movies, books, newspapers and the Internet across five continents!
FRANK GEHRY, 86
A “maestro of curves” and famous enough to be parodied on The Simpsons, he is unquestionably the world’s foremost architect. And from L.A. to Bilbao, his buildings stop traffic. Last year, the Canadian debuted a battleship of an art museum in Paris, commissioned by Louis Vuitton’s Bernard Arnault. Next up: Facebook’s 420,000-square foot campus in Silicon Valley.
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER, 85